Thursday, December 3, 2009

Culture of Faroe Islands

Culture Name:
Alternative Names:
Føroyar; Fóðrøerne


Identification."Faroe" (sometimes "Faeroe") may mean "Sheep Islands." The population is monoethnic, but is culturally distinct within Denmark as a whole. Within Norse Scandinavia, Faroese consider themselves most like Icelanders and least like Swedes.

Location and Geography. The Faroes include seventeen inhabited islands and numerous islets. The area is 540 square miles (1,397 square kilometers). The weather is cool and damp, with frequent winter storms. The landscape is treeless and mountainous, deeply cut with fjords and sounds along whose shores nucleated villages lie surrounded by fields and pastures. The capital has been Tórshavn since Viking times.

Demography. The total population in 1997 was 44,262, up about threefold since 1901(15,230) and about eightfold since 1801 (5,265). Tórshavn, with 14,286 inhabitants, is the only city. Klaksvík has 4,502 inhabitants, and seven other towns have over a thousand. The rest of the population (33.2 percent) lives in smaller places.

Linguistic Affiliation. Faroese is a syntactically conservative west Scandinavian language most closely related to Icelandic and the western dialects of Norwegian, from which it apparently began to diverge significantly after the Reformation while resisting assimilation to Danish. Reduced to writing in 1846 and redeployed for modern use since the late nineteenth century, it is a primary symbol of national identity, spoken and written by all Faroese. Faroese are fluent in Danish and increasingly in English.

Symbolism. Faroese consider themselves "ordinary people" living in "a small country." The primary symbols of national identity are the language, the local past, and the natural environment as these are articulated in oral and written literature, folk and scholarly historiography, and appreciations of the natural setting of social life. Other symbols include the flag (a red cross with a blue border on a white field, internationally recognized in 1940), the ancient tradition of ballad-dancing, the grindadráp (pilot whale slaughter), the old-fashioned garb sometimes worn on holidays, and the national bird, the oystercatcher.

History and Ethnic Relations:

Emergence of the Nation. Settled by the Norse in the early ninth century, the Faroes became Christian and tributary to Norway in the early eleventh century. They remained subject to the Danish-Norwegian Crown after the Lutheran Reformation (circa 1538). Their point of contact with the Continent passed from Bergen to Copenhagen in the early seventeenth century. In 1709, the Faroe trade (chiefly in exported woolens and imported foodstuffs and timber) became a royal monopoly. The Faroes remained subject to the Danish Crown when Norway passed to Sweden in 1814. In 1816, they were made a Danish county ( amt ) and their ancient parliament, the Løgting, was abolished; it was reconstituted as an advisory assembly in 1852. The monopoly was abolished in 1856, allowing the formation of a native middle class. Traditional open-boat, inshore fishing had already become the mainstay of the export economy, supporting a population that was growing rapidly after centuries of stagnation. The economy grew and diversified as fishing became an increasingly industrialized deep-water pursuit after about 1880. In 1888, a culturally nationalist movement began to gain a wide following. The movement became politicized around the turn of the century. The nation became internally self-governing in 1948.

National Identity. The principal factors shaping national identity have been the long survival of a distinctive way of life and the vernacular; the continuing integrity of village society as fishing supplanted agriculture; the adoption by an ascendant middle class of Danish National-Romantic ideals, including the notion that formal demonstrations of cultural (chiefly linguistic) distinctiveness should have political consequences; and the relative ease of accommodating socioeconomic change within this ideological framework. Other factors include the example of Iceland; an increasing estrangement between the native and Danish elites in the nineteenth century; and, among both Danes and Faroese, a continuing tradition of parliamentary government, the insignificance of religion, race, or noble blood as markers of cultural distinctiveness, and a mutual interest in maintaining close cultural, economic, and constitutional ties.

Ethnic Relations. The nineteenth-century nationalist movement's ideals were largely realized in 1948, when the Faroes won recognition as a culturally distinct, internally self-governing part of the Danish kingdom. Since then, Faroese citizens have been legally defined as Danish citizens with permanent residence in the Faroe Islands, and the Danish state has recognized the country's cultural and political integrity. Faroese nonetheless experience casual prejudice while in Denmark proper. The Faroes' population is essentially monoethnic, and since immigration from abroad has always been slight, considerable internal migration weakens regional identities, and political parties and cultural (including religious) institutions have been nationally rather than regionally based. Informally, one's Faroese identity is marked primarily by speaking Faroese and by having been born or raised in the country. People recognize differences among themselves on the basis of dialect differences and village origins, but these have no political import.

Political Life:

Government. In 1948, the Faroes became an internally self-governing part of the Danish state. As a Danish electoral district, the Faroes elect two representatives to the Danish parliament. The Danish government controls constitutional matters, foreign affairs, defense, and the currency (the Faroese króna is equal to the Danish krone ). The Danish state is officially represented by an appointed high commissioner called the Rigsombudsmand (Faroese, Ríkisumboðsmaður). The central institution of the Faroe's own government is the Løgting, a popularly elected legislature with twenty-five members from the islands' seven electoral districts and up to seven additional members selected so that its composition closely reflects the overall popular vote. As well as its own chairperson, the Løgting chooses a prime minister called the Løgmaour and a cabinet or executive committee (the Landsstýri) chaired by the prime minister. The high commissioner may participate ex officio in a nonvoting capacity in the Løgting. Partisan coalitions form a working majority in the Løgting. At the local level, there are fifty communes, each consisting of one or more towns or villages. Communes are governed by small, popularly elected councils. It is widely anticipated that the Faroes will become fully independent from Denmark if oil is found in Faroese waters. A new constitution is being prepared.

Leadership and Political Officials.Six political parties distinguished chiefly by their stands on national and social issues are currently (1998) represented in the Løgting. In the governing coalition are the People's Party (nationalist and conservative), the Republican Party (nationalist and leftist), and the Self-Rule Party (moderately nationalist and centrist). In opposition are the Social Democratic Party (moderately unionist and leftist), the Union Party (unionist and conservative), and the Center Party (centrist). Party affiliation plays only a small role in village-level politics; local leaders are chosen on the basis of individual reputations and expertise and personal and kinship ties. Political figures are not treated with any particular deference or circumspection.

Social Problems and Control. The Faroes' judicial system is thoroughly integrated with Denmark's. The Faroes constitute a Danish judicial district; the chief justice, the head prosecutor, and the police chief are Crown appointees responsible to the Ministry of Justice in Copenhagen; Danish higher courts have appellate jurisdiction; and Faroese are subject, with minor exceptions, to Danish law. Faroese are generally law-abiding, and crimes against persons are rare. Apart from traffic violations, the most frequent crimes are vandalism, burglary, and unlawful entry. Formal punishments include jail sentences, fines, and/or paying restitution. Informal methods of social control are directed against presumption, foolishness, and individualism that goes beyond eccentricity. They include a close, often bemused knowledge of one's fellow villagers, and linguistic expedients such as giving slighting nicknames, telling humorous anecdotes, and composing satirical ballads. Informal controls are shaped and mitigated by the fact that cooperation is highly valued while divisiveness and wanton gossiping are considered scandalous. Thus, slighting nicknames, anecdotes, and topics that might offend someone are avoided in their subjects' hearing.

Military Activity. NATO maintains a small unarmed presence at a radar base. Danish and Faroese vessels provide coast guard services.

Marriage, Family and Kinship:

Marriage. Faroese choose their spouses freely. Marriage is always monogamous and usually neolocal. Among the population over 20 years of age, 72 percent are married, widowed, or divorced. Spouses may hold property jointly or individually and how they treat their earnings is a matter of personal preference. Divorce remains uncommon. Divorced and widowed individuals may remarry freely. It has become common for young couples to live together without marrying until the birth of a child.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the nuclear family household, sometimes also including an aged parent or a foster child.

Inheritance. As a rule, all property except leaseholds is inherited by a person's children.

Kin Groups. Descent is reckoned bilaterally, with a patrilineal bias. "Family" (colloquially familja ) means both the members of a household ( hús , húski ) and, more loosely, an individual's closest relatives. An ætt is a patrilineage associated with an eponymous homestead, but neolocal marriage attenuates lineage affiliation after a couple of generations except among individuals who still live in the old homestead. There are no corporate kin groups except insofar as the family coincides with the household.


Infant Care. Infants generally sleep in cribs in the parents' bedroom. Older children sleep in their own beds, usually in a room with siblings of the same sex and of roughly the same age. Infants and small children play freely in the house where someone can keep an eye on them (often in the kitchen) or occasionally in a playpen. Tucked warmly into a baby carriage, they often are taken for strolls by the mother or an older sister. They are quickly calmed when upset, often dandled or entertained, and distracted from dangerous or unsuitable activities. Men and boys are affectionate with infants and children, but most care is provided by women and girls.

Child Rearing and Education. Children play freely in and around the village, mostly in same-sex, same-age groups, but day care facilities are becoming more common, especially in larger towns. Physical punishment is very rare. Getting along well with others is emphasized at home, among peers, and at school. Formal education usually begins at age 7, in public (communal) primary schools. Children may leave school after the seventh grade, but nearly all continue through the tenth. After leaving their home villages, many go on to pursue general studies or specialized training; some seek further training in navigation, nursing, commerce, teaching, etc. There are no important formal or folk initiation ceremonies. Minor ones include confirmation at about age 13 and school graduation.

Higher Education. The Faroese Academy (Fróðskaparsetur Føroya) in Tórshavn grants higher degrees in a few subjects, but university-level studies in most academic subjects, medicine, and theology are pursued in Denmark or abroad. Learning is respected, and education past secondary schooling is highly valued, in part as a route to high-paying occupations. Especially for men, however,occupations requiring practical expertise, public cooperation, and egalitarian relationships provide a more secure reputation.

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Advameg. 2009. "Culture of Faroe Islands". Available online:

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